Chapter 39 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
The Onyx Stone
Three days. That’s how long it had been since Raven had met up with the kobold Gyste and his strange alabaster-skinned companions.
And still I search for answers.
Gyste kept hidden the secrets he knew, revealing only what was blatantly obvious. Yes, the Afflicted One was planning to make a move that would reveal to all of Draza he was alive—but of course, no word on what the move was. And the when was the most closely guarded secret of all. He gave the appearance of being an open book, but his words were filled with partial truths. Gyste even maintained they’d once been friends—acquaintances, more likely, though Raven could not shake the fact that this servant of Azren was the first person he had met since his escape who treated him like a comrade.
More telling were his own observations. He learned that the creatures that accompanied Gyste, referred to as bulstan, were inhumanly strong. They broke thick branches for tinder with their bare hands. Drazan Common was the only language they seemed to speak, and even that barely, with guttural accents and broken sentences.
As they traveled south back through No Man’s Land to the rolling hills of Durfolk, the kobold’s anxiety appeared to grow. Every evening just before the sun descended into the horizon, a black crow arrived from the north. Its mouth held a pebble wrapped with a parchment message. Gyste would exchange the pebble with one of his own before sending the crow away. From the apprehensive way in which the kobold waited for these messages, they likely came from Azren himself. Each evening, Gyste became increasingly agitated, leading Raven to conclude things were not going as planned.
This morning, Gyste’s angst beaded from him like sweat. He kicked at the dirt, spoke sharply to the bulstan, and made the grequin tea so hastily it reminded Raven of bad mead.
After one sip, Raven spit the green liquid back out. “Maybe tonight, I will make the tea.”
Gyste turned with a perturbed look before breaking into a toothy grin. “Certainly. I think that would do us both some good.” He emptied the contents of his cup onto the grass.
“I wish to ask a question,” ventured Raven, taking advantage of Gyste’s lighter mood.
“You know you can ask me anything.”
But what answers will your slippery tongue provide? “How did I escape Azren’s domain?”
“Escape?” Gyste’s familiar, good-natured chuckle followed. “By the time you left us, you were no longer Azren’s prisoner. You were a guest. We were surprised when you were simply gone one day—all but the master. He seemed to know you would leave, almost as if he had planned it himself.”
Raven’s swords flew out of their scabbards and crossed at Gyste’s neck. “Your lies do not work with me.”
Two of the bulstan rushed to their master’s aid. Gyste seemed unperturbed, holding up a staying hand as if to say this was between Raven and him alone. “You cannot fight the truth forever.”
“You mean the half-truths.” A part of Raven knew there was something to what Gyste said, yet he would not accept that he had ever truly been a servant of Azren.
A bulstan gave a long, low whistle from the top of a hill.
“You must excuse me,” said Gyste, pushing away the blades at his neck. “We will have plenty of time to reminisce later.” He walked up the hill and exchanged a few hushed words with the bulstan before returning and climbing onto his mount. “Stay put,” he instructed Raven before setting off at a canter.
Raven had no intention of staying put. He had accompanied the servant of Azren rather than killing him with the idea that there would be useful information to be had. This might prove his best opportunity to learn more.
He started to follow the kobold, but the bulstan sentries blocked his path. He sat down and waited until Gyste’s outline had blended against the clouds, then used an illusion to mask his movements. When he rose to make his escape, the hulking warriors were there once again. His magic had no effect on them.
He considered forcing their consent but dismissed the idea. If all four drew weapons against him, that could be troublesome.
He went inside the tent and waited for a time before peeking out. The bulstan were no longer looking in his direction. Instead, they had taken their usual posts, equidistant and facing away from the campsite.
He got on his hands and knees and slunk from the tent. He abhorred the feeling of crawling; before he had been held captive by Azren, he was sure this would have been beneath him. Like begging for his life—he had done that, too. Azren had laughed at him cruelly, though the face of the Afflicted One always escaped him.
Of course he knew his past life was just that, another life he could never return to. The current Raven would do whatever it took: killing an innocent, betraying a comrade, or in this case crawling like a worm if it brought him a hair’s width closer to destroying Azren. But will I ever get close enough?
He concentrated on snuffing out any noise he made as he wriggled forward. It was such a simple illusion. The bulstan did not expect there to be a sound, so it should have been easy, especially on such weak minds. But therein was the problem. The bulstan were part men and part something else entirely. Raven had no control over the minds of animals or creatures bereft of intelligent thought.
He pushed the illusion, willing it to take hold. As he passed the perimeter, one bulstan turned partially toward him. Raven focused his attention on that bulstan alone, conveying the illusion that no one was around. His head pounded from the effort. The veins in his temples pulsed. He felt blood dripping from his nose. Finally, the bulstan turned back in the other direction.
Raven resumed his crawl until he reached his horse. He untied his mount from the tree and hoisted himself into the saddle, all the while trying to maintain the illusion on the sentries. It was not enough. A bulstan noticed him and moaned for the others. Raven wasted no time. He dug his heels in and his horse leapt away, thundering up a hill and down the other side.
He soon spotted two figures in the distance. He masked his approach, halting his mount close enough to hear what was being said. Gyste was talking to an agitated dogar.
“Incompetent fool.” The dogar pulled a hand through his slick, black hair. “I warned the master that trusting him to complete the mission was a mistake.”
“So you did,” agreed Gyste. “Though to his credit, things might have been different if it weren’t for the arrival of the gems. If they had been taken care of some time ago, as were your instructions, we would not be having these problems.”
“It’s not my fault that the Council is made up of a bunch of simpletons. I showered them with gold crowns, and yet they failed to dispose of even one of the cockroaches.” He sneered. “Talking about miserable attempts, blaming me isn’t going to divert attention from Kreeb’s foul-up at Einor. His uselessness is a reflection on all your kind.”
“I see you too are no stranger to the blame game, Belatreeg.”
The dogar’s face contorted furiously. “I told you not to call me that.”
“Very well.” Raven heard the amusement in Gyste’s voice. “But I believe your assessment is incorrect. Kreeb had some success in his dealings. And lest you not forget, it is our kind, as you so aptly put it, that has been with the master since the beginning.”
Belatreeg was still seething. “Azren cares little about loyalty. His favors are curried by deeds alone, my turnip-faced friend. In that, it is I who has done the most for his cause.”
Gyste looked about to give a heated retort when he ceded the contest for diplomatic ends. “It is not in our master’s interest to squabble. Let us finish our business and be off.”
“As you wish.” Belatreeg’s eyes shone with satisfaction at having won the battle of words.
“The master—” Raven’s horse whinnied and Gyste hesitated, despite being under the illusion’s influence. “The master wishes to know how things are proceeding with the war.”
“Splendidly, I would say. Prince Peldrin dotes on my words like an awestruck younger brother. In confidence, I told the prince that Azren was alive, and when I suggested how useful an alliance might be, he was amenable to the idea. It is King Reginald who concerns me. It seems as though a dislike of Azren has been ingrained in him from a young age.”
It seemed Azren’s meddling ran deeper than Raven suspected.
“And what is being done about your concerns?” asked Gyste
“There is nothing I can do. Prince Peldrin would not consider a coup against his father—cowardly twerp. My own men would question a direct attack against the king. An assassin is always a possibility, but who would take on such an assignment? And besides, with war at hand, King Reginald is never alone.”
“You have a suggestion, I gather?”
“I have convinced both the prince and his father to attend the Spring Merchant Faire at Dirn’s Outpost. Away from his castle, the king will be vulnerable. When the time is right, I can draw him outside the faireground. If Azren were to spare some bulstan, I could arrange for His Majesty to be at the right place at the right time. Once he is out of the way, I shall bend the prince—or, should I say, King Peldrin—to my will.”
“Interesting,” said Gyste. “I’ll write to the master your plan and meet back with you at the Merchant Faire.”
Raven was hauled from his mount and thrown to the ground. The air left his lungs. Two white hands picked him up and held him in place.
Gyste turned toward the commotion. “And just when I thought we could trust each other.”
He’s disappointed in me. An odd sensation ran through Raven he couldn’t quite identify. He choked—the smell of the bulstan reminded him of rotting food caught between teeth.
Belatreeg drew his weapon. “It’s him, the Onyx Stone, the most deadly of the gems!”
“Put it away,” said Gyste. “He is under control.”
“Orders are to kill him on sight.” Belatreeg advanced with his sword extended.
Raven tried to pull free, but the bulstan’s hold was unyielding.
Gyste stepped between them. “Orders are open to interpretation. Sheathe your weapon. I’m sure we can come to a mutual understanding.”
“You have been keeping him.” It was an accusation and a veiled threat—Raven’s very presence endangered Gyste.
“I see now that was a mistake.”
“He cannot be trusted with what he knows.” The dogar took a hasty swing at Gyste, more to get him to move than with intent to injure. Gyste jumped back, leaving Raven vulnerable. The bulstan’s grip was so secure, he might as well have been a tree trunk.
“Protect, my bulstan,” commanded Gyste.
Raven was cast face first to the grass. A moment later, the bulstan ripped Belatreeg’s blade from his grasp as if he were a child who had picked up a dangerous item.
“That’s enough,” said Gyste. “I think we are done for today.”
“The master will hear about this,” Belatreeg said.
“He certainly will. I’m already imagining your punishment for the attack on me.” Gyste’s eyes flashed dangerously in a way Raven had not seen before. “Go, and I may decide to keep this incident to myself.”
The dogar appeared shaken. “It’s like you said before, there should be no petty squabbles between us.”
“Await me at Dirn’s Outpost.” Gyste’s voice was still harsh.
“Of course. You know where to find me.” He changed his form as he turned away.
Raven did not get a good look before he was slung over the bulstan’s shoulder, but what he saw of Belatreeg’s new identity was enough to determine who he really was, or at least who others thought him to be. Raven was pleased. Being called the Onyx Stone was intriguing, but a dogar with the ear of the prince of the Western Kingdoms was the type of information he’d been waiting for, the kind he could use to his advantage.
Gyste did not share his sense of triumph. In fact, Raven had never seen him in such a way. His red complexion had deepened, the anger in his voice barely held in check as he spoke to the bulstan. “Smother, my bulstan.”
White, sightless eyes fixed Raven with an unemotional stare.
“I’m sorry, Raven,” said Gyste, “but you’ve left me no other choice.”
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